Thousands of people marched in Moscow on Sunday to pay tribute to Boris Nemtsov, who was shot on Friday night. But who was Nemtsov and why was his death so significant?
Nemtsov’s Early Career
Boris Yefimovich Nemtsov was a nuclear scientist, statesman and liberal politician. His mother was Jewish, but he was apparently baptized by his Russian Orthodox paternal grandparents as a baby. Following his university studies, he worked as a scientist in Nizhny Novgorod, about 250 miles east of Moscow.
Nemtsov’s first public foray into politics came in 1986 when, following the Chernobyl disaster, he organized a protest movement in Nizhny Novgorod against the construction of a new nuclear power plant there. The campaign was successful and the plant was not built.
In 1989 Nemtsov ran for the Soviet Congress of People’s Deputies. This was a legislative body devised by Mikhail Gorbachev as part of his political reform of the Soviet Union. Nemtsov was not elected; perhaps his platform promoting multiparty democracy and private enterprise was too radical for the times. However, he stood again the following year for a seat in the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Republic and managed to defeat the other 12 candidates, most of whom were members of the Communist Party. In Parliament, he joined the “Reform Coalition” and “Centre-Left” groups.
Political Success… and Failure
During his time in Parliament, Nemtsov met Boris Yeltsin, then the chairman of the Russian Supreme Soviet and soon to become the first president of Russia. In 1991, Yeltsin appointed Nemtsov as governor of Nizhny Novgorod, where for six years he was highly successful in attracting foreign investment to a newly open Russia. Nemtsov was appointed a deputy prime minister by Yeltsin in 1997 and was given control of the energy sector. This was the peak of his career and at one point it seemed likely that he might become the next president.
However, these ambitions came to an end with the August 1998 economic crisis, for which he was blamed and which cost him his government post. From then on, his political career declined. In 1999, Nemtsov founded the Union of Right Forces (SPS) with two other liberal politicians.
Although the party was quite successful initially, winning about 10 percent of the votes in the election that year, over the next few years its attitude to President Vladimir Putin moved from conditional support to open opposition, with a corresponding loss of electoral support. Following the 2003 election, in which the SPS did not garner enough support to reach the 5 percent parliamentary entry threshold, Nemtsov resigned as the leader and began to pursue a career in business.
Despite his withdrawal from official politics, Nemtsov remained vocal and active on the political scene and was a popular figure personally. He was a strong supporter of Ukrainian presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko in the 2004 Ukrainian elections, although the Russian government supported his opponent. Following the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, Yushchenko controversially appointed Nemtsov as an economic advisor. Nemtsov’s main goal was to improve business ties between Ukraine and Russia, despite his criticism of Putin.
This criticism continued and in 2010, Nemtsov was one of the signatories of an online anti-Putin manifesto: “Putin must go.” He continued to be active in opposition politics, attending protest marches and working with other opponents of the government. On a number of occasions he was arrested during protests and jailed briefly.
Death and Responses
Nemtsov’s shooting late Friday night, when he was walking with a companion, Ukrainian Anna Duritskaya, close to the Kremlin, occurred two days before he was due to take part in a peace rally against the war in Ukraine. President Putin condemned the murder and assumed “personal control” of the investigation. Nemtsov had said in a recent interview that he feared that Putin would have him assassinated because of his views on the war in Ukraine.
The investigative committee said that they were considering several motives for the killing, including “Islamic extremism.” One of the main theories being investigated is apparently that Nemtsov was killed by fellow opposition politicians as a “sacrifical victim” to increase tension in society. The committee announced a reward of 3 million rubles (about £31,500/$48,000) for information leading to the capture of the killers.
Duritskaya, who is the main witness to the shooting, has complained that although she gave all the information she could to the investigators, she is still being held in Moscow under guard.
Marchers at the peaceful rally on Sunday, the largest demonstration in Moscow since the protests of 2011–12, seemed to be blaming Putin for the shooting. Even if the president was not personally responsible, the feeling seemed to be that state-controlled media were trying to stir up patriotic paranoia against those “working to undermine Russia.”
Nemtsov was buried on Tuesday in Moscow.